“Addie and I were born into the same body, our souls’ ghostly fingers entwined before we gasped our very first breath.”
Hi, precious flowers. Once upon a time, I got my very first YA or GTFO ARC in the mail. OK, so maybe it was through Goodreads firstreads, but whatever. I would like to think that maybe I got chosen because of my blog. We all have our little delusions. Needless to say, I was pretty excited about Kat Zhang‘s What’s Left of Me, both because it was an interesting concept for a “dystopia” (I am using this term loosely here) and because it was the first time an ARC showed up on my doorstep with my blog’s name on it. Unfortunately, all those fresh-faced hopes were really disappointed with this dud.
Eva lives in an alternate reality in which people are born with two souls in one body. As the body goes through childhood, one of the souls gets weaker and weaker until finally it relinquishes control to the dominant soul and takes a nap for the rest of its “life.” Eva is a recessive soul that never left; she and Addie share one body, but they must live as if only Addie is present. People who make it through childhood with both souls alive and kicking are known as “hybrids,” and if they are discovered they’re carted off to loony bins or whatever and never heard from again. After years of being covertly dual-souled, Eva and Addie befriend Hally, a girl whose “foreign” looks mark her as strange in this alternate imagining of a pseudo-Aryan nation isolated U.S.A. (the rest of the world is overrun by rascally hybrids, which means wars and famine and general chaos). As they become closer, Hally shows Eva/Addie that there is a way to give Eva control over their body again, and even though it could risk their lives, Eva is willing to risk anything for the opportunity to be bodily alive for even a short while.
I’ll start with the positive. This was a really interesting concept and Kat Zhang did a good job of playing with language to convey the idea that there are two people living in one body; whenever something happens to Eva/Addie, Eva refers to herself as “we,” or “us.” The only times that she refers to herself as “I” is when she is talking about her thoughts or feelings, or when she is actually moving their body. It’s an interesting examination of what it is to be human, what it means to have an identity, and the horribly claustrophobic feeling of being trapped inside a physical body that you cannot control. I enjoyed the relationship between Addie and Eva; there was a subtle examination of the power play between them, and the interplay of guilt and reassurance that comes from it. Aside from those positive points, I’ve got nothing.
So, let’s dive into the negative. There’s a lot of negative, so hold on to your butts. This is going to be a bumpy ride.
For a book whose entire premise is a world in which two souls are alive in one body, none of these dual-souled people seem to actually have DIFFERENT people inside them. Yeah, they had different names and referred to themselves as “we” and whatnot, but there was little to no character differentiation between the two personalities in the hybrids. After however many hundred pages, the only notable differences I could discern between Eva and Addie was that Addie was a good artist and Eva wanted to make out with Ryan, Hally’s brother. Cool. I guess those are legit identity differences? Right? Maybe I’m being a curmudgeon, but if you’re going to write an ENTIRE BOOK where there is such a HUGE crisis around people having two different souls inside them, probably character development should be your strong suit. Just saying.
Point number two: Eva went from barely being able to talk to being some sort of fighting machine in like, two seconds. No. Just, no. I know that when reading books of “science fiction” one is supposed to “suspend disbelief,” but that was so laughable that I actually, well, laughed, and maybe even rolled my eyes a little.
Point number three: what the hell is going on in this world? There’s just one race in ‘murrica? How the hell did that happen? Was there genocide? Exile? WHAT??? Why are hybrids dangerous? Why why why why why why…
I could go on and on, but I think you get my drift. This book was just…not good. I had no sense of the world it took place in other than it being generally unpleasant and oppressive, and beyond the immediate concept the story had no bite, which brings me to my moment of GRUMP. Since The Hunger Games exploded there have been oodles and oodles of YA books classified as “dystopia,” which I believe I have already griped about; most of them aren’t actually dystopias, but just bleak sci-fi imaginings of alternate realities or futures. What is really starting to annoy me is just how many of these authors pumping out “dystopias” seem to have no clue how to write a good science fiction novel. Regardless of whether or not these books are dystopias, they are all some variant of science fiction, or at least sci-fi lite. With the exception of a few excellent contemporary works such as Nancy Farmer‘s The House of the Scorpion, Patrick Ness‘s The Knife of Never Letting Go, very few of these writers seem to get that good science fiction (or even speculative fiction) involves more than just a thought-provoking concept. You have to create a plausible world in which this concept can exist; in a good science fiction or fantasy novel, the setting reads as a character in and of itself. If you haven’t done the legwork to create a tangible world, then your whole novel falls flat and that snappy concept totally fails. So, I have a message for all you YA “dystopia” writers: do your damn homework. Go check out some classic dystopian novels (Ursula K. Le Guin‘s The Dispossessed and P.K. Dick‘s The Man in the High Castle would be a good start for heavy sci-fi, or Ray Bradbury‘s Farenheit 451 and Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World for the literary minded) and see how the masters do it. Take notes. I don’t care that those are adult books, the point is the same: writing science fiction and/or dystopian fiction for teens shouldn’t involve watering down the whole genre. Yes I know that I just read a particularly crappy book, that not everyone is as talented as Ursula K. Le Guin (sad face), and that there is clearly a market for this weak sauce sci-fi. But. BUT. That doesn’t mean I can’t get grumpy when my favorite sub-genre of science fiction gets bastardized for mass consumption, which seems to be happening on a stupidly wide scale. /rant.
Until then, I think YA “dystopia” and I are breaking up for a while. Unless something really eye-catching comes out…then I guess maybe we can talk.
Musical accompaniment: Tegan and Sara’s “Walking With a Ghost.” I know perhaps I’m interpreting the lyrics a tad literally, but they do seem to fit perfectly.
Where I got it: Goodreads First Reads